Plugged in to security

The Director of US National Intelligence, Dan Coats, released on January 22 a new National Intelligence Strategy for the next four years.

Plugged in to security

Close watch: Cyber security is of urgent concern and despite advances in improving defence from attacks, the threat is only likely to expand.

Shyam Saran
Former foreign secretary and Senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research

The Director of US National Intelligence, Dan Coats, released on January 22 a new National Intelligence Strategy for the next four years. It is a sobering document, acknowledging that the international order is transforming rapidly, with a decline of Western dominance and trends towards relative insularity among Western liberal democratic states. The report identifies, from the US perspective, the emergence of a powerful adversary in China and the resurgence of threat from Russia. But more significantly, it identifies certain key global trends. On rapid technological change, it says, ‘Technological advances will enable a wider range of actors to acquire sophisticated capabilities that were previously available only to well-resourced states.’ As a result, ‘This empowerment of groups and individuals is increasing the influence of ethnic, religious, and other sources of identity, changing the nature of conflict, and challenging the ability of traditional governments to satisfy the increasing demands of their populations, increasing the potential for greater instability. Some violent extremist groups will continue to take advantage of these sources and drivers of instability to hold territory, further insurgencies, plan external attacks, and inspire followers to launch attacks wherever they are around the world.’

These observations are very relevant to India.

The report has identified several  emerging challenges that relate to space and cyber technology, where both opportunities to advance human welfare, and threats that may undermine it, need to be dealt with. Space-based assets are proliferating and an increasing proportion of civilian and defence-related activities are dependent on them. But they are vulnerable to anti-satellite weapons and there is no global regime to govern this domain. Cyber security is already of urgent concern and despite advances in improving defence of cyberspace from malicious and debilitating attacks, the report predicts that the threat is only likely to expand in the coming years, both from state and non-state actors.

Among emerging technologies, relevant to security planning, it identifies AI, automation, high-performance computing, nano-technology and bio-technologies. These offer the promise of significant benefits but if unregulated, could cause catastrophic consequences. Currently, there are no common ethical standards and shared interests to govern these developments. 

No security strategy can afford to neglect these challenges, least of all a major country like India. And yet, we have no such strategy to date.

Since this document relates to intelligence strategy, it devotes considerable space to the gathering, collation, assessment of intelligence and to operational issues. It categorises national intelligence into strategic intelligence and anticipatory intelligence. The former attempts to draw a picture of the overall strategic environment a country is confronted with, its major adversaries and the international partnerships that can support its own efforts. The latter looks at ‘new and emerging trends, changing conditions, under-valued developments, which challenge long-standing assumptions and encourage new perspectives’. In this context, great value is attached not just to in-house capabilities, but also to inputs from outside experts, academics and industry. A culture of debate and dissent and openness to ideas is critical to making informed assessments. Our own intelligence system can draw useful lessons from this template.

What are likely to be the major preoccupations for US intelligence? The report identifies counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, cyber security and counter-intelligence and security as priority areas. Under counter-terrorism, the mission would be to ‘eliminate terrorist safe havens and degrade the illicit financial networks that fund terrorist activities’ and counter the spread of extremist ideology. There is also the threat of weapons of mass destruction falling into terrorist hands, especially in certain politically unstable N-states. Pakistan should be a prime candidate on several of these counts. Counter-proliferation is a self-evident objective. The US’ covert operations to degrade Iran’s nuclear capabilities are likely to continue. What is worth noting in the category of counter-intelligence is the citing of threats, not only from foreign intelligence entities, but also insider threats from domestic actors. In dealing with the latter, the report declares the agency’s intent to respect privacy of the citizen and operate under the supervision of legal and congressional supervision. This is particularly important in a democracy. There is no parliamentary oversight over our intelligence agencies; there is weak accountability and opaqueness that need urgent remedy.

The National Intelligence Strategy is a public document enabling public debate. This can contribute to its refinement and enable broad political and public support. This strategy is aligned to the National Security Strategy of the US, which is also a public document. This enables coherence in pursuing a security strategy. Reading through the current document, one becomes aware of the complexity of national security challenges a modern state confronts, their inter-connectedness, with strong feedback loops among the connected domains. Inter-disciplinary and cross-domain interventions are indispensable in such an environment and a state must systematically accumulate capacities to be agile in anticipating and tackling challenges. Such capacity will often need inputs from the larger community of experts, academics and analysts, both at home and abroad. The sooner India begins to create such an ecosystem, the more capable it would to tackle its multiple challenges.


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